Saturday, December 08, 2012


The minister said, in her eulogy, that if ever you were despondent you could go to Helen and she would tell you how wonderful you were. And that was true, and she was a lovely person that way. She thought everyone was wonderful, and made sure they knew it.

But you know, it actually took a little shine off, when she put it that way. Because we all, except the buddhas, have at least a little whisper of self that wants to be special. If everyone is wonderful, what does “wonderful” mean? It's another word for “ordinary.”

That itch to to be singular and special is probably the closest analog we Buddhists have to original sin. So long as I want to be better than other people, I've got to push some of them down; I want to curry favor with some and belittle others; I want to form a little circle of the best people, according to some criteria or other, and to lure some people in and push other people out. Writ large, you get the whole sorry history of the world. Writ small, you get the ongoing disasters and ruination of eros in the fields of family and friendship. It's often not such a good thing to want to be special.

All faiths take up the problem, but the Buddhist solution is perhaps the most complete and draconian. No “last shall be first” conveniently postponed humility for us. We take the more drastic step of denying that we're even distinguishable. How can you rank things if they're not even identifiably separate? The endeavor is absurd. If you're not sacred on account of having consciousness and hence buddha-nature, then – being able to type 140 words a minute, or bench press 300 lbs, or write immortal poems – or having teal as your favorite color, or rooting for the St Louis Cardinals, or pulling decisively into an intersection to make your left turn – or knowing the difference between “their” and they're,” or being too clever to identify with a major party, or understanding the difference between twill and serge – or – whatever the hell it is, everyone has their own bizarre and ridiculous list of the things that make them really special, God help them – really, can anyone think about this for more than a couple of minutes and not understand that the Buddha was right, that none of these things could actually make you valuable and precious, if the mere fact of having consciousness doesn't do it?

And what is consciousness, after all, but a cascade of thoughts and perceptions thundering down the rocks, driven on by the weight of all the stream of thoughts and perceptions of those before us, and pouring down into the little basins of the innumerable baby skulls below us? Watch a waterfall and try, try to follow a single drop run its way from the top of Multnomah Falls to the litter of debris below the bridge. That's “my” thought you're following. Sure. Give it up. It doesn't make any sense.

So what, then? If I give it up, if I give up ownership of the little eddies in my own skull-basin, halfway down the torrent, perched there among the moss and and the fume? What am I doing, what should I be doing? I am not sure, but I can very certainly say what my job is not: it is not to create water out of nothing, and it is not to persuade the other basins round about to acknowledge the specialness of the swirls of foam in my own bowl. Whatever it is – not that.


rbarenblat said...

There's much in this post which has me nodding my head in rueful recognition. I'll need to give some thought to how Judaism addresses this problem. I think immediately of the notion of chosenness, that we are the chosen people -- though there are some wonderful midrashim which argue that it's not so much that God chose us, per se, as that God tried to give Torah to all sorts of other people and no one else wanted it. Though I suppose in the end, it's still a sense of our own specialness.

Much to ponder. Thank you, dear Dale.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

H'm...but what about simply knowing you are unique, not striving for uniqueness or denying anyone else's uniqueness? The DNA of each of us is slightly different from every other individual's DNA and whether those differences (and whatever they may mean that isn't biologically evident) are cosmically insignificant or cosmically vital is a matter of interpretation...isn't it? Awareness of specialness might be wired into the complex pattern of consciousness but if some individuals turn that notion into chest-thumping egocentricity in all its forms, that doesn't necessarily mean that specialness per se is false.

Zhoen said...

And this is why I cannot be Buddhist anymore than Christian. Seems to be talking around the issue, denying it rather than living with it. Everything is different, some things work better and so survive better. I don't think that works any more than that everything is clearly Good or Evil.

Dale said...

Well, yes: some of us have peach-colored skin and some chocolate-colored, and there are people & whole societies that have taken this to be a grave difference indeed, fraught with all sorts of ethical and economic consequence. But you can admit the difference without thinking it very important. Just so, I can admit that I am different from Natalie and Zhoen without thinking that it matters very much.

In any case, I hope no one is taking away the notion that I think they should engage in buddhist practice. Avoid it if you can!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Yes, but it goes further than that for me. Because that built-in sense of uniqueness (assuming for a moment that it is built in) is very specific and personal and carries with it the question: what do I do with this, what is it for? along with a feeling that the answer is in me if I can just push aside the veils concealing it. In my view, there are too many choices in being human: it's like being in a supermarket with miles of products. A sense of uniqueness is helpful because it's more like being in small village shop and all you have to decide is what you can do with what's available.

Dale said...

Ah, I see! Identity as teleology. Yes, it's been valuable to me in that way.